Nine years ago, I began to slowly awaken to my racial prejudices and white privilege. It was a rude awakening. During the past three years, I’ve blogged about that journey from racial ignorance. Recently, someone asked me what have been the biggest surprises along the way. What do I know now that I didn’t know before? What follows is a short list of some of my bigger epiphanies and the posts where I shared these revelations.
I didn’t know that for a short period after the Civil War black people made significant progress in political and economic terms. I didn’t know we had black US Senators and Representatives, that many southern states had black legislatures, that black literacy rates skyrocketed and blacks make significant economic gains. I didn’t know about the reign of terror necessary for whites to end this moment of possibility, murdering thousands of black men, women and children. A Splendid Failure.
I didn’t know lynching is a term that covers a whole range of violent acts, usually beginning with cutting off the victim’s ears, nose and sexual parts, burning of body parts or the entire person, hanging the body, dragging the body through the streets, and usually depositing the mutilated corpse in the middle of a black neighborhood. I didn’t know this often happened in a picnic atmosphere, with white children encouraged to watch. I didn’t know that in the hundred years after 1865 a lynching took place once a week somewhere in America. Avoiding the L Word.
I didn’t know very few enslaved persons lived on plantations like those glorified in white literature and media. Most enslaved persons lived and worked in conditions more like those practiced by the Nazis in their work camps, where the goal was to squeeze the most labor possible out of a person before their death. Enslaved adults seldom lived past the age of thirty. I didn’t know slavery in the United States was industrial and enslaved persons were systematically tortured. I didn’t know the term “slave” objectified enslaved persons and allowed white people – in the past and now – to avoid seeing them as human beings. Whitewashing Slavery.
I didn’t know that allowing enslaved persons to have wives and families was a means of control and profit rather than a sign of humanity. Enslaved persons with families were less likely to try to escape or rebel against their treatment. Their families were hostages. Additionally, one of the ways for slave owners to increase their wealth was to sell their slaves. I didn’t know, in the 1850s, the chief export of the state of Virginia was enslaved persons. Slavery As America’s Original Sin.
I didn’t know scholars and sociologists believe nearly 100% of enslaved women were sexually assaulted. I didn’t know how much the free access of white men to black bodies was part of white culture. Some sociologists estimate 50% of all children of slaves had a white father. This kind of sexual aggression continued throughout Jim Crow. I didn’t know the conviction of a white man for raping a black woman was extremely rare before 1960. When Rape Was Legal.
I didn’t know that – in some ways – the years after the end of slavery were worse than during slavery. I didn’t know vagrancy laws allowed white people to “arrest and convict” nearly any black person and enslave them. Thousands of black families were torn apart as fathers were sent off to “serve their time” in factories and on farms. The death rate at these prison camps was as high as 50%, meaning that the penalty for “vagrancy” in the south was often death. Worse Than Slavery.
I didn’t know black people began asking for reparations in 1864 and that no economist questions the tremendous wealth enslaved persons created for white people. I didn’t know lynching was one means of squashing any discussion of reparations. I didn’t know the New Deal and the GI Bill both systemically excluded black men and their families. I didn’t know black leaders have been asking for reparations for generations. I didn’t know white resistance to this reasonable request has always used the same racist rhetoric. How To Know If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question.
There is so much I didn’t know. I didn’t know the obstacles that my black daughter will face as she navigates a world while black. I didn’t know how deeply rooted racism is in every American institution and practice. I didn’t know how many times every day I benefit from white privilege. I didn’t know how pervasive white supremacy continues to be, barely hidden under the surface of our culture. I didn’t know how often our nation has elected a president who blatantly sympathized with these racist sentiments. Trump is simply the most recent.
But none of these epiphanies qualify as my biggest surprise.
Most of all, I didn’t know how resistant white people would be to hearing and knowing our history, to acknowledging present injustices. Again and again, I have encountered white people who deny, rationalize or excuse this history, who pretend all is well. They insist that whatever happened in the past has no bearing on our present racial divisions. While most white people seem perfectly willing to celebrate countless events and persons from US history, when it comes to anything that has to do with racial oppression, we do all in our power to change the subject, shift the focus and obscure the facts. Ugly White History Month
My biggest surprise has not been what white people don’t know, but what white people don’t want to know. I didn’t know how important this militant and willful ignorance is to sustaining white supremacy. It is nearly impossible to maintain an ideology of white superiority if one truly examines the inhumanity and brutality of white behavior toward people of color for the last 400 years. I didn’t know how absurd arguments for white supremacy truly were. White Inferiority.
There is so much I still don’t know.
I don’t know how we dismantle a system of white supremacy, when most white people are perfectly happy with the status quo. I don’t know how we educate white people about the history of racial oppression when they refuse to acknowledge the facts. I don’t know how we can possibly heal as a nation until white people admit past injury and seek forgiveness. I don’t know if writing about this makes much difference.
I do know this.
Writing, discussing and even learning about racism is worthless, if it doesn’t change our behavior, opinions and passions. Dismantling racism will require a systematic reconstruction of every aspect of American life. It will require white people like me becoming radical and vocal advocates for reparations and reconciliation, demanding the institutions we control and inhabit act differently, surrendering power and resource to those from whom we robbed of this power and resource. What we attempt will be revolutionary.
I do not know if we will be successful.
I do know I want to try.